Exploring Local
Mike Dobson of TeleMapics on Local Search and All Things Geospatial

Use Cases and Online Maps

January 4th, 2016 by admin

Hi, Everybody.

This topic started out innocently enough and wasn’t research for a blog. What I was trying to do (my use case) was to find driving directions to several wildlife sanctuaries that had been recommended by my photography buddies. I started the process by Googling the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge. Google pops-up a side panel on the search results page that includes specific information on the refuge in question. See Figure A.

Google Search Page for Cibola NWR
Figure 1. Google Search Results for Cibola NWR

I clicked the “Directions” button at the top of the panel, presuming that this could be used to produce a route from my starting point to the refuge in question. Well, it did produce a route to the refuge in question, but not one that would be very useful for most visitors to this location (See Figure 2 below, if you want to skip ahead). Adding to the confusion, Google does not always employ the same use case to solve other examples of the same class of problem.

The vagueness of Google’s routing solution led me to examine the issue in greater detail. During the process, I concluded that Google, Apple and HERE* still do not seem to appreciate the nuances of the relationships between mapping and the types of use case employed by map users, although they do seem to understand the general notions. For example, Google represents wildlife refuges, national parks, national wilderness areas and places of this ilk that have a reasonable size by a shaded polygon. This is common GIS practice and can provide useful, though very general location information. These polygons, on Google’s maps, in turn, are identified by a symbol that apparently represents a centroid within the specific polygonal boundaries for a location. This is a reasonable way to show the appropriate map name associated with a tinted polygon. However, it is an inappropriate trip destination for a routing engine, but it is what Google frequently uses in these cases.

Well, good luck with that! Autonomous vehicles are going to love this stuff (hope the autonomous car people at CES are reading this). In many cases, if not most, the location of a centroid, placed in this manner for the class of objects being examined here, will be located in an area of inaccessible wilderness (e.g. a location that does not have roads or trails leading to it). The locations denoted by the symbols used by Google do locate the respective property and should be reachable by helicopter, but seem mismatched when paired with the common notion of the type of directions presented by online routing engines and expected by users (the “common routing” use case).

Let’s look at this problem by examining a series of maps. In all cases the origin of the route was the same and in all cases the map shown resulted from clicking the “Directions” button on the search panel that Google produced for each location. For purposes of presentation the images shown are crops of the maps Google generated to portray directions to each of the locations. (Yes, I know the maps are oversized. But they are pretty easy to read.)

Google Map of Route to Cibola NWR
Figure 2. Google Map showing a proposed route to the Cibola NWR.

Google seems to have gone out of its way to calculate paths to the destination that route you along actual roads as close to the centroid as they can take you by car and then draws a dashed line from that point of departure to the centroid. Above is an example of a route between my house and the Cibola National Wildlife Reserve.

When I sent this map to a friend he suggested that I buy a Range Rover with the snorkel option, since the route that starts when the road ends takes you through a river and into the wilderness. No, there is no bridge or other crossing where Google shows its “dashed-line route.” A useful alternative strategy would be to route visitors to the visitor center or the refuge headquarters of the relevant property. This example led me to wonder exactly which use-cases Google might have considered when creating their cartographic representation of a route to the Cibola NWR.

Let’s look at the Google Map to the nearby Havasu Wildlife refuge for comparative purposes.

Google Map showing its proposed route to the Havasu NWR
Figure 3 Google Map Showing a proposed route to the Havasu NWR.

For your information the Office of the Superintendent for Refuge is located in Needles, California. That might be a helpful place to send you for the camping, fishing and hunting permits needed to use for this property, but that was not Google’s choice.

On the other hand, if you were considering visiting the Channel Islands National Park off the California coast, Google routes you directly to the park headquarters at the harbor in Ventura, California, and doesn’t even show you the islands or the direction to them on the map presented.

Google's proposed route to the Channel Islands National Park
Figure 4 Google Map showing a proposed route to the Channel Islands NP

Perhaps that is because you cannot drive to the islands? But why does Google show the park headquarters in this case and not in others where you cannot drive to the symbol Google uses to represent the entity, but can drive to the park headquarters or the visitor center? Maybe this is an example of Google considering a different use-case. Hmmmm?

Next, if you want to visit Haleakala National Park, Google not only shows you that you have to fly to Maui, but provides information on fares and flights.

Google's proposed route to Haleakala National Park
Figure 5 Google Map showing a proposed route to Haleakala NP

Unfortunately once you land in Maui, the route provided by Google ignores the main road to Haleakala and takes you to another of its concocted centroids that you can reach by helicopter, but not by driving. Hmm, yet another use case!

Now, more absurdity. Look at this Google route to the Grand Canyon National Park.

Google's proposed route to the Grand Canyon NP
Figure 6 Google’s proposed route to Grand Canyon NP

I Hope nobody tries to drive this “route.” After all, remember what happened to Evil Knievel and his rocket-propelled motorcycle! Yes, that is the official Grand Canyon Visitor Center shown on the map, even though Google avoids routing you to this location. After all, why use the only paved road in the area.

How about this one for Yosemite National Park?

Google's proposed route to Yosemite NP

Figure 7. Google’s proposed route to Yosemite NP

After all, why would a visitor would want to tour Yosemite Valley when they could destroy their car trying to traverse the Sierras, but not using known roads or trails?

I’ve decided what to get Google next Christmas: A sense of direction and a basic text on cartography. A primer on common use-cases for map use and when to employ them might be a nice addition. Note, I looked at a few maps from Apple and HERE for the same places and found similar errors.* Maybe I should send primers to each of them?

Or, perhaps, Google could “read” the “Visiting Cibola” page at the Cibola NWR website, as I did, and click the provided lat/lon, which uses Google Maps to generate a route directly to the Visitor Center at the Refuge. Guess those Refuge guys know their use-cases. Some of you may have noted that Google provides an address for the Cibola NWR and you can generate a route to that address as interpreted by Google. However, the spot identified by Google is not the Park headquarters/visitor center (although you would drive past it to reach this location).

My biggest concern here is that Google crawls the websites of the entities mentioned and could easily determine locations within each area that corresponds to an informative use case or ones that could be tailored to general map-use case requirements. Perhaps that is the future of mapping – maps on demand tailored to specific use cases?

Many may read this comment and think, “Well, it’s something Google can fix.” True, but the question is more complex than it appears and requires some insights into cartography, map use, and human factors engineering. More specifically, someone in the mapping group at Google needs to thinks about the differences between routing and reference maps, as well as the influence of use cases on both.

If you think I am picking on Google – go back and take a look at my earlier blog “Google Maps and Search – Just what is that red line showing?” . Google gets the act of mapping data, it just does not seem to understand map use. As you might expect, I think this is something that needs to be fixed sooner than later.

By the way, Toyota is entering the mapping derby, or so they said in a press release for CES. I plan on blogging about Toyota’s announcement sometime soon.

My best wishes for a successful, healthy and happy 2016

Dr. Mike

* MapQuest and TomTom could not find Cibola NWR, even when I gave them a city name and Postal Code. Every time I look at Apple’s Maps I get a headache. Their design is terrible, but this can be overlooked. The data errors are more problematical. Apparently Apple has trouble understanding the concepts of boundaries. Maybe I should write about that sometime?

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Posted in Apple, Authority and mapping, autonomous vehicles, Google, Google maps, HERE Maps, map compilation, Map Use, Mapping, MapQuest, Mike Dobson, Personal Navigation, routing and navigation, TomTom, use cases

One Response

  1. Nick Chrisman

    Mike, hilariously written, and with a real message. I may pass the hat for a collective contribution to give a text on map use to each of these dominant illustration generators. All communication requires an understanding of the use; what does the reader need to know?
    The Yosemite example shows some peculiar limitations: the route switches to the curved line at the entrance to the public land? Yes, boundaries are an issue.

    Hi, Nick:

    Good to hear from you. I appreciated your comments. I guess we will never run out of things to discuss in blogs like this unless we do take up that collection you mentioned.